I was sitting in a restaurant in Oakland this evening with some friends, waiting to be seated at the sushi-boat counter.
A woman was seated at the sushi counter between her two children. The boy might have been nine years old, the girl maybe ten or eleven. The girl’s hair – in the process of fading from childhood blond to adult brown – fell in her face and hung in strings down her narrow back. The boy’s hair hadn’t yet started to dull, and it sprouted in sweaty tufts around his head. As we came in, the kids stared at me, whispered to each other, stared, looked away, whispered to their mom, stared some more. I caught the girl’s eye and smiled at her. She looked away and didn’t smile back, then looked back a moment later and whispered to her mom again. Her mom whispered back to her, and the girl kept staring.
I don’t really mind kids staring. I like curiosity in children, and I’m ok with it that they don’t know the rules of tact yet.
My friends mentioned that they’d enjoyed reading this blog, and I asked if they’d heard about the Sikh woman with a beard. They had, and we were in the middle of chatting about her when I saw the mom’s cell phone peeking over her thin shoulder, camera pointing in my direction. Her head was turned to the side just enough to keep her perky ponytail out of the photo but not enough to see me. Her daughter looked at the picture on the screen and whispered to her. I stared into the camera, eyebrows raised to say “really?” They didn’t flinch. The cell phone stayed where it was for another five seconds or so, with the daughter whispering to the mom.
“Speaking of which,” I said to my friends, nodding towards the woman. My friends looked. That didn’t make her put the camera down either.
“I usually mind people taking pictures,” I told my friends, “but I’m thinking of going and talking to her. Somehow it bugs me more that she’s doing this with kids.”
They nodded. “You’ll be a better parent than that.”
The woman finally pulled her cell phone back down out of sight, and her kids leaned in close, presumably to see the pictures. I continued the conversation with my friends, but I kept wanting to go say something. And I kept not actually getting up out of my chair.
When I was a kid, I got teased. Endlessly. My parents taught me that bullies are looking for a reaction and that’s part of what makes it fun for them. So if I didn’t react, eventually they’d get bored and go away. So I learned not to react. Not to get upset in front of them, not to argue back, to roll my eyes and act like I couldn’t care less about what they were saying. It was largely true. My parents had also taught me to have confidence in myself and to have pride in being a good person. So, I knew I was better than the bullies and that their opinion of me didn’t matter. And yet it still hurt. And they didn’t stop; I think they may have taken my stoicism as a challenge.
Now, when folks are rudely curious about my beard, my default reaction is this learned apathy. Partially, I genuinely don’t care. I’m confident in who I am and I could care less if a stranger thinks I’m weird. But it’s also partly about not letting them know they can get to me.
The handful of times someone has taken pictures without asking or stared too long, I feel like I should say something, that I should act as the queer ambassador and start a transformative conversation with this stranger that will make them realize the error of their carelessly homophobic ways and build unexpected connections. I feel like it’s my queer duty to inform these folks that they’re not supposed to take people’s pictures like that. Not so much because it bothers me. But because I don’t want my silence to turn into tacit permission to take a picture of the next queer freak they see. That next queer might actually mind being photographed, and I don’t want to silently contribute to their discomfort.
But my gut reaction, my conditioned junior-high response, is to say nothing and look distinctly unfazed. Which makes it hard to go say hi. Plus I’m an introvert.
But this time I did it.
The restaurant hostess came to show us to our seats at the sushi boat counter. As we passed by the woman and her children, I stopped.
The woman turned.
“Were you taking my picture earlier?”
“Ah, I saw your phone, and I just thought you might be taking my picture.”
“No. Uh, we were just, uh, playing a game.”
“Ah. Well, I just thought you might be, since I saw your phone. And I wanted to let you know that if you wanted a photo, you’re welcome to one, you’d just have to ask,” I stammered in a perky tone, barreling through the shyness I was feeling.
“Ok. Well, enjoy your meal.” And I walked away.
“Did they cop to it?” My friends asked as I re-joined them.
I keep replaying it, wishing I’d said it differently – not led with a question that gave them an easy out, been friendlier, something. But, at least this time, I did say something. And even if the mom didn’t respond well, maybe the kids got something out of it.